I have fond memories of the music of the '80s, including the era of hair bands like Poison, Bon Jovi and Night Ranger, as well as the hits of 1987, the year that the '80s rock comedy musical Rock of Ages takes place in the fading glory of LA's Sunset Strip. Hair bands have been relegated to things of nostalgia, ridicule, and irony, but as Rock of Ages is right to point out, when it comes to popular music, we have and did do a lot worse. Watch the trailer for Rock of Ages below.
The film revolves around a fictional club called the Bourbon Room, a once-legendary venue owned by aging rocker Dennis (Alec Baldwin) with help from his British sidekick Lonny (Russell Brand). With the Bourbon about to close due to unpaid taxes, Dennis' only hope is a big show by Stacee Jaxx, an overindulging, spaced-out rock god (Tom Cruise), whose band got its start at the Bourbon and is on the verge of breaking up at the urging of Stacee's sleazy manager (Paul Giamatti).
Drew (Diego Boneta) is a barback at the Bourbon with his own dreams of hair metal stardom, who finds his inspiration with Sherrie, a fresh-off-the-bus Oklahoma girl (Julianne Hough) with her own rock 'n' roll dreams who becomes a waitress at the Bourbon, as well as Drew's girlfriend. Meanwhile, a moralizing conservative moms group led by the mayor's crusading wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is trying to get the Bourbon shut down in an effort to clean up and commercialize the Strip, though destroying Stacie Jaxx is her real obsession.
Now there were some things in Rock of Ages I really liked, but there were also things that were annoying or just plain weird. But what's weirdest is that what I liked and what I didn't like were often the same things.
First, with a few exceptions (Singin' in the Rain, Once), I generally don't like filmed musicals, especially when the music isn't original. That's because I'd much rather hear the original songs than an actor, even a talented one, doing their karaoke version. And I know I sound like a grump, but I can't get over the fact that all the music in filmed musicals is lip-synced (I can imagine Rock of Ages being much more thrilling live), and I have a really hard time with people earnestly and spontaneously bursting into song, which, would be a nightmare in real life and nothing would ever get done. Of course, these are problems I have with musicals in general, not Rock of Ages specifically, and when Mary J. Blige shows up as the owner of a strip club who hires Sherrie when times get tough, the music gets a burst of energy. It makes me wish there was a whole album of Blige belting out 80s tunes.
Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx is, let's face it, just plain odd, since Cruise, despite being in great shape at almost 50 years old, just isn't sexy and is too old for the role. What's more, Jaxx -- who seems like a mix of Jim Morrison and Scott Stapp of the '90s Christian poser rock band Creed -- is out of place compared with the loudmouth bad boys of hair metal like Mötley Crüe's Vince Neil or Skid Row's Sebastian Bach. But Cruise's commitment to such a strange, uncharacteristic role is so absolute that he's fascinating to watch, especially in one ridiculously sexed-up number with Malin Akerman as a Rolling Stone reporter, which briefly makes the film feel daring. I found the Sherrie/Drew story to be mostly boring, and the fact that you never see Hough dance, which she did so masterfully on Dancing With the Stars and the remake of Footloose, is a real missed opportunity. However, Baldwin and Brand make such a hilarious odd couple that I wish the whole movie had been about them.
Hopefully conservatives will get in a tizzy about how they're portrayed, especially as their own sexual hypocrisy is revealed, but it's important to laugh at what conservatives in the '80s were screeching about, since very little has changed and, as with issues like gay marriage and climate change, we'll soon be laughing at how anyone could've been so backwards. But while Rock of Ages humorously identifies pop as the enemy of '80s rock, it was really bands like U2, R.E.M. and eventually grunge and alternative that slammed the door on hair bands, when the conspicuous indulgence of the '80s proved empty and unsustainable and we realized that there was more to life, and music, than just a good time.